What Really Impelled Reagan

Michael Deaver, the close friend and longtime aide to former President Reagan, once commented that Reagan's "secret weapon" was that the media underestimated him.

Indeed, when Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980, reporters scratched their heads. How on earth could a B-movie actor become president of the United States, and what would he do with the most important job in the world?

Over the course of his life, however, Reagan proved time and again he was far more than he was cracked up to be.

In 1964, he broke onto the national political scene with a spellbinding speech on behalf of Republican Barry Goldwater, who got trounced in his bid for the presidency. Reagan, a man who had never held government office, went on to become a two-term California governor. Then, after failing twice to capture the presidency himself, took that office for two terms as well - leaving with higher approval ratings than when he started.

How he accomplished this is partly attributable to his likability. The man who called himself a "citizen politician" could relate to everyday Americans, and through his great communication skills, could talk to them just as if he were sitting in their living rooms. Indeed, he came directly into their homes like no other president since FDR, turning television into a powerful tool at the White House.

Reagan himself, however, thought more highly of his ideas than his style. In his farewell address as president, he said: "I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference; it was the content." That content was simple, but powerful: lower taxes, less government regulation, a strong military, and an optimistic outlook for America after the gloomy '70s. Combined with his style, it unified a fractured GOP, beat down the debilitating inflation of the Carter years, and eased the world out of the cold war - his greatest legacy.

Those ideas did not always play out well. He and a Democratic Congress saddled the nation with record deficits; the Iran-contra scandal was a blot on his administration. His style - a big-picture man who did not sweat the details - led to trouble running the White House, and allowed the arms-for-hostages-for-rebels scheme to flourish.

A child of an alcoholic father, Reagan was taught by his mother that people are inherently good, and that with perseverance, much can be accomplished. Perhaps this is the real explanation of how an actor became president, and how Reagan's America, in a time of global tension, played its role as "a shining city on a hill."

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